In a discussion at a GREAT educational ning community (Fireside Learning), the question came up that has a real bearing on what we are talking about when we talk about cultural literacy in general, and Bible literacy in particular.
In Stephen Prothero's book Religious Literacy, just as in E.D. Hirsch's New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (which is available online), there is a whole panoply of Bible characters and stories that are included in a "list" approach to cultural literacy. If you are curious, here is what made Hirsch's list for the Bible.
The question that came up in the discussion was about what to call these things that appear on such lists. It's actually not easy to say what they are. People assume it's good to know these things because they make it possible to identify allusions. So, if high school students are reading Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, they need to know that Absalom is the son of King David who rebelled against his father, etc. Faulkner, in the title of his book, is alluding to the story of David and Absalom. But what do we call "Absalom" here, the thing alluded to? It's actually a bit hard to come up with a good word for that in English!
Someone in the discussion at FiresideLearning referred to them as "allegories" but that is definitely a term that will not work, and actually has a very unfortunate connotation when it comes to material from the Hebrew Bible.
In an allegory, something, call it "The Thing," is interpreted as a symbol of something else, call it "The Meaning." The problem with allegory is that The Thing is usually considered to have no meaning or value in and of itself. Instead, the only thing that matters is The Meaning. In extreme cases (and allegory does tend to extremes!), The Meaning actually anhilates The Thing. Allegory has thus traditionally been used to contain awkward or uncomfortable aspects of culture, which cannot be simply deleted from the cultural tradition. The ancient Greeks used it to deal with embarrassing behavior on the part of their gods, for example, converting Homer's myths into an allegory of Platonic philosophy; you can read a great account of that in Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition by Robert Lamberton. Homer was not a Platonic philosopher by any means, but the device of allegory is able to empty out Homer's epic and fill it with new Platonic meaning.
This style of allegory had a great influence on both Jewish and Christian tradition. The middle Platonic philosopher and great Jewish theologian Philo used allegory in order to turn the stories of the Hebrew Bible into a Platonic allegory of the soul. The erotic love songs of the "Song of Songs" have been interpreted by both Jewish and Christian scholars as an allegory of the soul; it is not about carnal love between man and woman, but the spiritual love between the soul and God. You can't get rid of the book, but at least you can insist that it is not about what it is about. It is about something else.
It is with Paul, however, that the decisive step is taken for allegory. In his interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, Paul decides that the story of Sarah and Hagar is not about the historical persons Sarah and Hagar at all, but about the Jews of Jerusalem (Hagar) and the children of a heavenly Jerusalem (Sarah) who are the followers of Jesus. In their triumphalist narrative, the Christians were definitely in trouble with a text, the Hebrew Bible, which presented a triumphalist narrative of the Jews, God's chosen people. So Paul uses allegory to make the Hebrew Bible mean something quite the opposite of what its literal meaning tells us: the children of Abraham through Isaac are not the Jews, but rather than Christians (the free children of the promise), while it is the children of Abraham through Ishmael who are the Jews (the slave children of the covenant God made on Sinai).
Beginning with Paul, allegory has played an enormous role in the Christian tradition, assimilating the Jewish text of the Hebrew Bible and turning it into a crypto-Christian text, filled with prefigurations of the coming of Christ, created by the allegorical style of interpretation. Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers: allegory for Jesus. Jonah in the belly of the whale: allegory for Jesus. And so on.
It is for that reason that we need to hesitate about saying Bible stories should be taught as part of general cultural literacy because they are allegories.
There are some other terms, however, which can convey the cultural assumption that there is a value in studying the stories and characters from the Bible as a contribution to cultural literacy. The term I would propose is "example" or the Latin word "exemplum" (many words in our vocabulary of rhetorical terms come directly from Latin or Greek). I am not 100% happy with this term, but it is the best I can come up with. (Better ideas, anybody...?)
The idea with "example" is that characters from the Bible and the famous stories in which they are engaged serve as examples of some kind, examples of a general type of story or some general message. By studying these examples (Latin plural, exempla) from the past, we can build up a storehouse of knowledge to help us in interpreting the events we participate in ourselves today.
There used to be a whole genre of "exemplum" literature, in both the ancient and medieval worlds. The study of exempla was an important part of the educational process. The reason this term is especially appealing to me for educational purposes is that it saves us from the rote memorization of the "facts" and instead insists that these examples be understood in terms of their meaning. Instead of just "background information," these items are being included for their meaning, not just for the information they contain.
Let me take an example from Hirch's list of Biblical items to show what I mean. Absalom, interestingly enough, did not make the list. Poor Faulkner! I think that alone points to the pernicious danger of making such lists; I hope that nobody assumes reading this post that I am in favor of such lists - I am not.
Anyway, here's an item that did make the list: Cain and Abel. Since I recently posted about that story here in the blog, let's see what Hirsch says about them: The first children of Adam and Eve, born after the Fall of Man. Once, when they were grown men, both Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to God. When Cain saw that Abel’s pleased God whereas his did not, Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy. For his crime, Cain was exiled by God to a life of wandering in a distant land. God “set a mark upon Cain” to protect him in his wanderings. The “mark of Cain” now refers to an individual’s or humankind’s sinful nature.
Great! That is exactly what I mean by an exemplum. You would want to talk about Cain as an example of sinful nature. Of course, you can also use Cain as an example of rivalry and jealousy, and as an example of homicide (this was the first homicide in the Biblical history of the world, after all). You can also use Cain as an example of strife among brothers, or as an example of a condemned criminal living abroad (you can find at least one of those in the pages of the New York Times any day, I would guess!). If you read the Biblical story, you will find out that Cain went to dwell "east of Eden," giving you a very nice exemplum to go with a reading of Steinbeck's novel of the same name, which features a bitter rivalry between two brothers for their father's affection.
Let's try Elijah, whom Hirsch also includes: A prophet of the Old Testament, who opposed the worship of idols and incurred the wrath of Jezebel, the queen of Israel, who tried to kill him. He was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
This is more disappointing. What would a student make of this entry? It does give the student something to memorize which you can ask on a multiple choice test (so beloved by so many so-called reformers of education). Yet it does not tell a student what is meaningful about Elijah, why out of the thousands of individuals mentioned in the Bible, Elijah has made his way onto this list. The pieces of the story told here do not fit together to tell a meaningful story.
Now, the "chariot of fire" shows up as a movie title, indeed. It also appears in the hymn Jerusalem, originally written by William Blake, which has become an important part of the British tradition (more on that here).
So do we say people should memorize a few sentences about Elijah because there is a movie with the title "Chariots of Fire"...? Do we include Elijah so that students can understand what it means to leave a seat "for Elijah" at a Jewish Passover seder? Or simply because Elijah is still a pretty commonly found name in America? In other words: why Elijah? Hirsch's presentation of Elijah's story does not make that clear - it is hard to tell what Elijah is meant to be an example of, and why he would be used by others - great writers, painters, poets, ourselves - to convey a particular meaning.
I would argue that unless Elijah himself is able to convey some meaning, unless we say that Elijah is an example of something, it is going to be very hard to teach Elijah's story to students in a meaningful way. Without some meaning, without being an example of something, Elijah will not be someone students remember as being really important, as more than just a "factoid" on a list.
Okay, that's surely enough for now. I hadn't realized what a can of worms I had opened in asking myself this question. Definitely worth pondering some more. I do care about cultural literacy very much, and I wonder if the absence of a way to even really talk about it is part of the reason why we are having such a crisis about it in our schools, eh? Hmmmm....
Meanwhile, I cannot resist including an image of that chariot of fire! It comes from the Nuremberg Chronicle (you can read more about this amazing book at wikipedia).